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Breaking Down Stigma
Addiction specialists reveal the truth about the disease.

By Sydney Purpora

Oct. 2017

There are many misconceptions and false stigmas surrounding the disease that is addiction. To uncover the truths behind the illness, we spoke with Christine Ullstrup, vice president of clinical services for Meta House, a women-only addiction recovery nonprofit, and Dr. Lance Longo, medical director of addiction services for Aurora Behavioral Health Services.

Ullstrup says it’s important to understand addiction doesn’t pick and choose whom it affects. “The more we stigmatize this disease, the more people don’t get treatment because people use (a) word like ‘addict,’” she explains.

Longo agrees, and says he knows from experience that addiction doesn’t stereotype. “The reality is (that) I have a lot of upstanding citizens who have gotten caught up in the throes of addiction. I treat doctors, teachers, preachers, kids from nice families, and I think that the stereotype unfortunately causes embarrassment for people who should be seeking treatment — or it delays the onset of help-seeking because of the stigma,” he adds.

Here we break down six additional misconceptions of addiction.

1. People with an addiction can quit whenever they want.

Like many diseases, addiction’s impact changes over time and as the illness progresses. “It’s a continuum,” says Longo. “So in the beginning, (a person) can be (in control) — a person can recreationally use alcohol or other drugs and may have control over that. But over time, then that loss of control occurs.”

When the needs of an addiction take over, Ullstrup says a person’s everyday choices revolve around the substance. “It can kind of hijack your brain at some points, so it’s harder to make a good decision because the brain’s rewards system is looking for something different,” she explains. “So as much as you want to make a good decision about something in your life — a relationship, driving or not driving, going to school, going to work — sometimes addiction takes over.”

2. To avoid damaging your relationship with someone who has an addiction, you must stop communication with them until they become clean.

When someone becomes addicted to a substance, both Ullstrup and Longo agree that having a family member, friend or even co-worker alongside him or her can aid the recovery process. You can listen and support someone with an addiction, but only if you feel safe emotionally and physically and understand how the disease can affect your loved one, Ullstrup says.

“A lot of people, like family members, unfortunately just ignore (the problem), or, on the flip side, just yell and berate the person who has the problem and then that person just kind of goes undercover,” Longo says.

3. Addiction is something you can never overcome.

Ullstrup says the timeline of addiction and recovery is highly individualized. Depending on the duration of use and access to the drug, a person’s addiction process can vary.

“(Certain drugs) have very potent effects in terms of brain chemistry — they prime the brain’s reward pathway, and if a person uses them for more than a couple of weeks, every day, there will be withdrawal when they stop using,” Longo adds. “So they’ll feel compelled to continue to use just to feel normal or to get rid of sickness.”

Nonetheless, Longo and Ullstrup say anyone can overcome addiction with proper treatment and support from loved ones.

4. You can stop someone’s addiction by enforcing a dry-home environment.

Although it can be helpful to limit access to the substance, enforcing a dry-home environment can have life-threatening consequences for someone with an addiction.

“Depending on the substance, (cutting it out) ‘cold turkey’ can be dangerous,” Ullstrup says. “If someone is physically dependent on alcohol or a benzodiazepine, going through withdrawal can be fatal.”

5. Only people who have a bad addiction will relapse.

Ullstrup and Longo compare relapsing to cheating on a diet or not sticking with an exercise regimen; it can happen to anyone, but it’s not something to be ashamed of.

“Relapse is not necessarily a bad prognosis, and many people have to relapse in order for them to own the fact that they truly have an addiction and can’t return to controlled use of alcohol or a drug,” Longo says.

However, Ullstrup says it is important to recognize that although relapsing doesn’t mean you failed your recovery, you don’t have to relapse to become clean. “You’ll hear out there, ‘Relapse is a part of the disease,’” she continues. “It is, but it doesn’t have to be. You don’t want people to think, ‘Oh, I should relapse,’ or ‘I’m not doing this right’ either. But it’s very possible, because it’s such a chronic condition, that you’re going to mess up.”

6. Addiction is not hereditary.

Because addiction impairs your brain’s behaviors and desires at a neurological level, it’s no wonder family history plays a role. “There is a huge genetic component that I think we’ve learned more about over the years, and it’s (that) if you’re the son or daughter of an alcoholic or drug-addicted mom or dad, you have a 45 times greater likelihood of developing an addiction,” Longo says.

Ullstrup agrees, and says addiction is more likely to occur due to certain hereditary situations or home-life factors — or a combination of both.

“The science shows us that some people have a genetic predisposition to addiction,” Ullstrup explains. “The other thing is that people grow up in households or in families where they see or learn, probably on an unconscious level, that a way to cope with uncomfortable situations is to drink or to use drugs.”


This story ran in the Oct. 2017 issue of: